The tendency to memorialize a life still in process is usually best avoided, just in case the latter years materialize into an invalidating process of the whimsy that fed a youthful mind. Self-described "truly independent actor" Craig Chester proves quite the exception with his just-released book, Why the Long Face? -- The Adventures of a Truly Independent Actor (St. Martin's Press). His often painfully hilarious life-thus-far story gives the easy indication that it could fill a much larger tome than the book's 261 pages allow. It touches on the awkwardness of a gay, Texas upbringing and, ultimately, the unlikely limits of a supposedly liberal Hollywood. Delivered with a weathered smirk of sarcasm and self-deprecating wit, Why the Long Face? is more than the sum of Chester's 37 years; it's an extremely likable insight into the creative - and gay - mind itself. It's very, very funny.
"Everybody always told me that I should write a book - all my friends - because I have all of these crazy stories," recalls Chester from his home in New York. "So I always sort of had it in the back of my mind. And when I got to a certain age, I realized that I had had this really weird life. I was doing all of these gay movies and was aware that there was something going on around me that was sort of unusual."
It would take a chance encounter to actually facilitate Chester's eventual literary ambition. "I was at a party in L.A., and I met the editor of this magazine, Instinct. I was telling him this funny story about my audition for the "Will & Grace" pilot, and how I wasn't gay enough to be Jack and too gay for Will. I had done all of these gay films, but I could never get a small gay role in a straight film, because I wasn't the right kind of gay."
Said editor encouraged Chester to jot down his experiences, and when the essay was published in Instinct, a publisher at St. Martin's tracked Chester down, book deal in hand. Initial interest came in the form of a name-droppy, industry tell-all, as the actor had become something of a critical darling in such indie-circuit film fare as Swoon and Kiss Me, Guido. But Chester had different ideas.
"I sort of said, 'Well, that's fine, but I have all of these other stories, too. Like, that I was a born-again Christian, I had a deformed face growing up, and how that made the fact that I was this gay poster boy even harder."
Chester's early bout with "long face syndrome" (a painful, disfiguring and difficult to treat condition) forms a centerpiece for much of the book's revelation, fueling the inadequacy and silence of an already difficult pubescence. Already aimed for a career in theater, the actor's facial appearance became an obvious embarrassment. At 18, he was old enough to have his facial bones effectively broken and wired back together. Hilarious? Sort of - if only for the meditations and fermentations of a fertile mind denied the ability to speak. Having endured Texan family meals, his own portion creamed in the Cuisinart and forced through a straw, Chester finally cracked in the face of relatives such as Nee Naw and Cecil speaking of him as if he weren't there ... and constantly mentioning how ugly he was.
"That was it," he writes. "I couldn't take it anymore. For reasons that I don't understand, bread was the food that I missed most during those months of no food ... . I turned around to face my family. Picking up a dinner roll, I threw it across the room spontaneously. It unintentionally bounced off my grandma's nose, leaving a small butter stain."
Chester's first professional acting experience would come soon thereafter, in an ill-advised production of "AIDS - The Musical!" featuring such winning numbers as "Rimming at the Baths." It was auspicious, considering the expected Texas conservatism, made even more difficult when the strong religious beliefs of his own family - born-again in Chester's earlier years and speaking in tongues whenever possible - are factored in. But there was nothing too strange for Chester, himself.
"The gay community and the religious community have a lot in common, because they both tell you what to wear, what kind of music to listen to, what kind of hair to have," he surmises. "So the things they have in common are really about conformity.
"But it's good to be different. Your life can be much more interesting if you're responsible for it."
For Chester, that responsibility involves everything from owning up to throwing up on playwright Paul Rudnick (after his first ecstasy trip on Fire Island) to the gossipy lack of anonymity after shacking up with several peers in his Alcoholics Anonymous group. Noting that most "comedy is essentially anger on some level," Chester seems unfettered in his recollections on a miserable, sometimes angry life. Usually, anyway.
"A lot of the stuff from my childhood - it's so in the past that it wasn't difficult to revisit. And I made peace with a lot of it," he says. "But there's a chapter called 'Legitimate Excuses' about being dumped by my lover on Sept. 11. That chapter actually wasn't supposed to be in the book. It happened because I was writing the book, and I got dumped, so I was immobilized with depression. Somebody told me writing it would help me get past this writer's block, which is what it did."
As did the new seeming celebration of other gay essayists, such as Augusten Burroughs, David Sedaris and Bob Smith.
"It's the right time," he says. "Also in terms of portrayals of gay people in the media, it feels to me like we're at this weird, 'OK, we have our TV shows now' point, like we're at the very first point of acceptance. Hopefully what will happen is that people will start to move away from the point of having to convince people that we're not psychopaths.
"In the last two years we've been begging for mainstream acceptance so much that we've had to be homogenized to a degree."
With several completed roles in movies pending release, along with a television cameo on HBO's "Sex and the City," Chester seems content to rest a bit on the release of his book, scheduling readings at bookstores throughout the country, as well as one at the just completed Sundance festival. But the career shift should be temporary. He's already at work on a screenplay to star himself and his best friend, Parker Posey, titled "Adam and Steve" ("sort of a gay There's Something About Mary," he reveals). And he can take his newfound literary vocation to its next appropriate level: humility.
"The book is the hardest thing I've ever done," he laughs. "I will never complain about being an actor again. Now when my actor friends gripe, I'm like, 'Oh, please. You have the easiest job in the world!"
Any regrets, then?
"Well, I kind of always wanted Dolly Parton to be my mom."